I had the privilege of traveling to Germany for two summers. I was working for an American Dressage rider. I know not many people get this opportunity and I know I am very lucky to have done it not only once, but twice. I wanted to share a little bit about my experiences there and tell every young rider out there, if you get the chance- go.
Both years, we were based out of Etteln Germany at Hubertus Schmidt’s barn, Flyenhof Stables. The first year, we took over 2 horses and we had one more that was already in Germany. It was my boss, myself and one other groom so it was not a very stressful summer as we only had 3 horses to take care of. Because of this, I was able to spend most of the summer soaking in every moment and learning as much as I possibly could from the German master, Mr. Schmidt. My boss and I arrived a couple days before the horses so we could prepare everything for them when they arrived. As we drove through the town where the barn was located and where we would be living, I quickly realized this would be a summer spent only with horses. Etteln is a very small town with only 2 restaurants and one bakery. The corn fields in the town most definitely outnumbered the people. But, I honestly was only there to learn, nothing else, so this was perfect. We, of course, went straight to the barn from the airport. I quickly spotted Hubertus riding a 5 year old stallion in the arena. He was just doing working canter and my jaw dropped. I had never seen a horse of this caliber and a rider that looked so effortless in the saddle. Needless to say, I was a little star struck when I met Mr. Schmidt. He quickly introduced himself and his wife to me and I tried to act normal and not like I was jet lagged/star struck/socially awkward. They were both insanely friendly and made us feel right at home immediately. Honestly, I could write for days about different experiences I had in Germany. But there were a few top points that I learned and that’s what I want to share with you today.
- It’s not about the movements
The times I wasn’t working, I was sitting at the arena watching. Their indoor was a bit smaller than a 20×60 and most of the time there was at least 6 horses going at once. Sometimes more. It was Hubertus and about 4 working students that kept all of the training horses going. Literally everything from training level to GP. Hubertus primarily worked the GP stallions, which were his show horses. I was mesmerized by how he rode. He would bring a horse out, warm up at walk, trot and canter and you would almost be bored. The horse looked like nothing special. Long and low frame. Average gaits. Normal. Then he would take a walk break and then he would pick up the reins. All of the sudden that horse would come up in the frame and look like a freak of nature, international Grand Prix horse. Then, after his work session, he would walk the horse on a long rein and it would be just as relaxed and happy as it was during the warmup. I learned how important it is not to drill the movements every day. 98% of his rides were only transitions and making the horse supple. There was one horse that I had been watching, I assumed was 3rd level ish. And one day he told us he would be showing that horse Grand Prix the next weekend. He touched on each movement the week before and then put in a beautiful Grand Prix test at the show. It just goes to show that if you have a horse that is supple, on the aids and happy in its work, the movements are easy
- Let horses be horses
When we first pulled into the barn (Flyenhof) I was pleasantly surprised. When you have been in Wellington for a while, you have sort of unrealistic expectations for barns. You get used to million dollar farms, pristine paddocks and freshly groomed arenas. But when we pulled into the driveway at Flyenhof, I immediately saw huge turnout fields, muddy paddocks and older looking barns, being reminded we weren’t in Wellington anymore. Now, keep in mind, there were very nice horses here. I’m talking high 6 figure (or more) horses. And did they care that they were standing in mud for their morning turnout? No. They’re horses. I think Dressage horses in the US tend to be a bit too bubble wrapped. Going out in turnout in full body armor, being watched 24/7 by workers, living in a stall cleaner than my house. All of this is great, and not necessarily a bad thing. But I think somewhere along the way, we forgot to treat horses like horses. If Hubertus Schmidt’s top Grand Prix stallion that competed in the olympics can get turned out naked in the mud, I think my horse will be just fine. Their horses literally don’t get baths until the day before a show. They don’t get 500 supplements in their feed. The majority of them ate oats. Why? Because they don’t look at them as $900,000 investments, they look at them as horses.
- Be brave or don’t ride
About 2 weeks into the summer, Mr. Schmidt called myself and my boss up to the arena. He promptly gave us each a list of about 3 horses to ride for the day. Again, I tried to act normal, but I’m literally dying on the inside. Did he really want me to sit on his horses? Apparently this is completely normal and if he and his working students can’t get all the horses ridden, we got to help. So literally he would tell us the name of the horse. That’s it. We would go find it in the barn and try to figure out which tack went with the horse. So you are literally tacking up a horse that you don’t know how old it is, what level it is, if it’s going to try to kill you or if it’s bombproof. I would put my helmet on and walk up to the ring with my horse that I only knew it’s name. Occasionally Hubertus would tell you a little something about the horse when you got on but not very often. It’s just expected that if you call yourself a rider, you can get on and do basic work on any horse. Most of the horses I rode I was very comfortable with. But there was one. There was one Grand Prix stallion that gave me goosebumps. I had seen him work for a month or so before I was asked to ride him. He was about 17.2 and full of himself. Every time he walked through the barn isle to get tacked up, you could hear him coming from a mile away. He would yell bloody murder and practically drag the groom down the isle as he let every horse in the barn know that he was coming through. So my 5’3, 120 lb self was asked to ride him. I walked down to the stallion barn and looked this horse in the eye and geared myself up for walking him to the grooming area. I stood tall and gave myself a full on “you are a horse person and you can do this” pep talk. Well, it didn’t work. That horse drug me everywhere and all I could think was, “please Lord just let me get to the cross ties alive”. So then, as I am literally shaking in my boots throwing a saddle on this animal that just tried to kill me, I’m trying to control myself and giving myself a pep talk again. I got him to the arena (he drug me to the arena) and I got on. He was shaking his head around like a true stallion and I was terrified. Apparently it showed and Hubertus sternly told me to sit up and trust the horse, that he would be fine. Fine, I thought. Sure he will be. In that moment I literally wanted to get off and say I can’t do it. But I knew if I did that, I wouldn’t be trusted to ride anymore. So as terrified as I was, I sat up and rode that horse. That was a big turning point for me in my riding career. By the end of the summer I would go hop on any horse and feel perfectly fine.
- Work hard, then work a little harder
Every single person at Flyenhof worked their tails off. For the working students, they would start their day by feeding and cleaning out the stalls starting at 6am. By 9 they would all be tacking up their first horse. They would get 30 minutes to eat lunch and would continue riding until 5pm. They tack up and take care of every horse they ride. Then they finished the day with feeding and cleaning stalls again. It’s their life. And they worked insanely hard at it. I’ll never forget one day after a horse show, we went to the barn for night check to find Mr. Schmidt in his white show breeches on his tractor mowing the hay fields. Mowing the hay fields at 8:00 at night after a day of showing Olympic Grand Prix horses. Everyone pulls their weight and everyone works hard. Mr Schmidt would regularly ride through his lunch break. But he would never ask his groom to stay and help. You could find him with a curry comb and a tail brush getting his horse ready during lunch. And he was perfectly fine with that.
Again, there’s so much I learned while working in Germany. If you are a young rider and you have any kind of opportunity, go. 100% go. You’ll never have another opportunity like it again. But- be prepared to go in all guns blazing. Be prepared to work hard. Be prepared to ride the best you’ve ever ridden or you won’t be given the time of day. Be prepared to give it your all and make it your life. And last but not least, also be prepared to buy bigger pants because the bakeries are incredible 🤷🏻♀️